Can We Please Stop Pretending to Care About Sign Stealing?

The baseball world was left spinning after an article was written in the sports publication The Athletic by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, in which former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, alleged that the team utilized illegal methods to steal signs from opposing teams. On Jan. 13,  Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a report summarizing MLB’s investigation into the Astros and handed out severe punishments. Houston Astros Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Lunhow were each to be suspended without pay for the 2020 MLB season. Less than 24 hours after the suspensions, both Hinch and Lunhow were fired by Astros owner Jim Crane. 

Shortly thereafter, the Boston Red Sox and manager Alex Cora mutually parted ways amidst rumors that Cora, the bench coach for the Astros in 2017, would be hit with similarly harsh penalties in thenear future for his role in the scheme. Then, within the same week, the New York Mets parted ways with newly hired manager Carlos Beltrán, a player for the Astros in 2017, before he had managed a single game.

In the span of a week, three managers and one general manager were fired, and three teams were affected. In the coming days, there would be rampant speculation on social media about Astros players wearing electronic devices under their jerseys that would buzz to inform them that a certain pitch was coming. In the baseball world, all hell broke loose.

Stop. Everyone take a collective deep breath. This really is not that big of a deal. What did MLB’s investigation find?

According to the Commissioner’s report, approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Beltrán, discussed that the team could better decode opposing teams’ signs and communicate the signs to the batter. Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout. One or more players watched the live feed of the center field camera on the monitor. After decoding the sign, the player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter. 

Now, it is worth noting that all teams were notified during the 2017 season that use of electronic devices to decode signs was strictly prohibited, but the Astros knowingly continued to do so. They broke the rules, plain and simple, and should be punished. I am not arguing against that point. However, for the severity of the “crime,” these punishments are patently absurd. In addition, the fear of other MLB organizations to be associated with a former Astros player or coach (ie. Beltrán and the Mets) is senseless. 

The Astros did not concoct a scheme to pay off umpires or help their players circumvent league drug tests — they stole signs. Stealing signs in baseball is as old as the sport itself. Little League teams do it, high school teams do it, college teams do it and professional teams do it. Are we going to pretend that only the Astros have access to monitors and electronic devices? Every team can (and although I have no information, I would guess many other teams do or have) and possibly do the exact same thing that the Astros did.

In addition, the notion that the Astros had some sort of “unfair advantage” is ridiculous at face value. Baseball is a numbers game, so let us look at the statistics. During the 2017 regular season, the Astros, as a team, won more games on the road than at home. They had more total hits, more doubles, more triples and scored more runs in road games than home games. They had a higher team batting average (Avg.), on base percentage (OBP.) and on base plus slugging percentage (OPS.) in road games than home games. Why is this noteworthy? Because the allegations of sign stealing only pertain to Astros home games. 

They played worse, not better, when utilizing the replay monitor and banging trash cans. Now, the postseason is a different story. They unquestionably played better at home in the playoffs than on the road and the sign stealing may have contributed to that success. The notion that this “scandal” propelled the Astros to a 101-win regular season in 2017 is a figment of the imagination. 

For the fans and players that wonder how any team is supposed to counteract such a devious scheme to decode signs, I suggest you look not further than the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals. Barry Svrluga reported for The Washington Post in November of 2019 that the Nationals were aware of potential attempts by the Astros to steal signs, so they took matters into their own hands. 

First, each pitcher had to have his own set of signs, and catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki had to be familiar with each one. The staff printed out cards with the codes, and had them laminated. The catchers could have them in their wristbands, a la an NFL quarterback with play calls strapped to his forearm, and the pitchers would have them in their caps. Each pitcher had five sets of signs, and they could change them from game to game—or even batter to batter, if necessary. Using the set labeled No. 2, but worried the Astros were catching on? The pitcher could signal to the catcher to move to set No. 3. 

Next came the way the Nats employed their signs, which was nontraditional. Rather than just use, say, the second sign the catcher put down, the Nats might “chase the two.” That meant the pitcher would watch for the catcher to put two fingers down and then throw the pitch that corresponded to the following sign. Or they could play “outs plus one.” So if there was one out, the pitch would be the second sign the catcher put down. If there were no outs, it would be the first sign. “Strikes plus one” worked the same way. 

This all goes to show that it is indeed possible to beat a team that engaged in the high crime of sign stealing. Once again, the Astros should be punished. They broke the written rules of the game. However, if you are worried about the integrity of our national pastime and find yourself using the word “scandal” to describe a practice as old as the game itself, or if you believe that the penalties dished out to culprits are somehow not harsh enough, I  would suggest that you calm down. This will be okay, baseball will be okay, because in the end, this is not a big deal.